Every time we are exposed to visual stimuli, we encounter the exciting and impactful phenomenon known as visual perception. This shapes how we view not only our surroundings, but also how we examine and enjoy a variety of artistic works.
By understanding what visual perception is and how it functions, artists and enthusiasts alike can improve their experience of creating, viewing, and enjoying works of all kinds. To that end, we're committed to answering the important questions: what is visual perception, and how does it impact art?
What Does Visual Perception Mean in Art?
While visual perception determines how we view and learn from the world around us, the concept is especially impactful as applied to the visual arts. This complex relationship between stimuli and how they're perceived and understood shapes how artists create works and imbue them with meaning. This also influences the artistic experience from the viewer's perspective, determining how they take in visual works and what they derive from these pieces.
Why Is Visual Perception Important?
Visual perception determines how we take in visual stimuli and use it to shape our thoughts and feelings. From the artist's perspective, these processes can either be regarded as profoundly limiting or as exciting opportunities. Without visual perception, the very concept of art would be impossible, as perception is what brings meaning to what we see and experience.
History of Art Visual Perception
Our understanding of visual perception expanded during the 20th century and is continuing to evolve — but historians agree that the underpinnings of this modern take on visual perception first emerged centuries ago.
An analysis published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences suggests that the roots of this practice appeared during the Renaissance, as linear perspective techniques advanced around the time of Kepler's exciting discoveries regarding the retinal image. However, through advancements in neuroscience, we've gained greater insight into how the retina, optic nerve, and visual cortex work — and the centrality of these processes to the artistic experience.
Famously intrigued by the intersection between psychology and art, Rudolf Arnheim dedicated much of his career to studying and informing the public of the scientific manifestations of visual art. He deserves credit for our modern visual perception definition, especially as it pertains to art.
Trained in psychology but fascinated by film and other then-new forms of media, Arnheim strongly believed that no matter the form they took, a human's understanding of various experiences was primarily shaped by visual perception. He argued that "perception organizes the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye."
Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye
Often referred to as Arnheim's magnum opus, this influential book was one of the most iconic art-oriented publications of the 20th century. It draws on scientific and psychological principles to describe how visual material is organized by the human eye. While it is by no means a leisurely read, this remains one of the best resources for conveying the complexity and beauty of what happens when we view visual art.
How Is Perception Used in Art?
The relationship between perception and art is inherently complex and always evolving. This is influenced by anatomical processes and the unique perspective of each viewer, as shaped by personal experiences and a variety of other factors. Artists can play with these concepts to bring greater nuance to their work, with simple shifts in composition completely transforming how a particular piece is viewed or how it speaks to the viewer.
Art has the unique ability to play up a perplexing reality: as painter Anthony Waichulis explains, we intuitively think of visual elements as providing an objective window to the world — but in reality, stimuli "generated by a biological vision system are not accurate, objective recordings of the environment." This, in turn, creates a "chasm between the physical world and our perceptions of it is significant." So, what we think we see is a construct, rather than some sort of objective measurement.
This knowledge can be disconcerting to the viewer but should prove exciting for the artist: it demonstrates that humans have an impressive ability to imbue all we see with meaning — and this ability is clearly present and influential when we view works of art.
Visual Trends and Elements
The concept of visual perception increasingly shapes many key artistic trends, especially as they are further influenced by advanced technological developments. Virtual reality, for example, increasingly draws on immersive elements to produce a more realistic psychological response. A variety of tricks can be employed to manipulate our brain's response to virtual stimuli — especially our tendency to complete mental images of the objects we see, rather than consciously perceiving their shapes or colors on an individual basis.
Moving forward, the concept of art perception will prove influential across modalities. A report published by the Society of Imaging Science and Technology delves into what this says about the viewer's perceived quality of the artwork. The central theory is that, while sensory processes themselves are important, it is also crucial to examine "how the outputs of such processes may be exploited to experience some stimulus as art."
Focal Point and Visual Process
Through a greater understanding of the visual process — and how it can be manipulated — artists can discover what, exactly, makes tried-and-tested composition techniques so impactful.
The perfect example? Focal points, which are meant to draw the viewer's eye. As a key area of interest, the focal point commands the viewer's attention while providing insight into why a particular scene was depicted in the first place. This concept draws on the psychology of vision and the accepted understanding that humans can only clearly focus on one visual element at a time, with the rest appearing soft or just partially discernible.
Multiple focal points are possible, but they serve to draw in viewers and guide their gaze through multiple components of the work in question. These can bring a sense of rhythm to a work of art. Elements that contribute to the various focal points are also important; these include contrast, complementary colors, and framing or lines (actual or implied).
Relationship Between Visual Perception and Art
The complex relationship between visual perception and art involves a few key players: the eye (which takes in visual stimuli), the brain (which perceives and makes inferences from the visual cues obtained by the eye), and the work itself, which can be purposefully cultivated to influence how the eye and brain work together.
While this process begins when the artist is creating the piece (or even when the artist is physically or mentally viewing the inspiration behind that piece), it is initiated, from the viewer's perspective, by the simple act of resting their eyes upon a particular work of art.
Reflected light — traveling as electromagnetic waves — enters the eye through a front layer called the cornea before reaching the retina. By this time, the light has been bent on multiple occasions: while moving between the cornea and the lens, and again between the lens and the retina. The retina contains photoreceptors, which are charged with altering rays of light into visual information.
Neural signals then travel along the optic nerve. These make it to the visual cortex, which is crucial for processing complex visual information. Featuring six layers, the visual cortex initiates the complex process of interpreting images. This is where everything from depth perception to color and even motion is perceived and processed.
While the aforementioned processes of the cornea, retina, and optic lens are involved in the act of viewing stimuli, art is unique from other stimuli in that it produces greater blood flow to the brain and even produces nuanced and highly personal emotions through a process known as embodied cognition.
The visual cortex is also responsible for determining whether viewers react favorably to art. While the various neural factors that shape aesthetic preferences remain poorly understood, it is evident that, while viewing art, the medial prefrontal cortex breaks each piece into specific qualities and assigns a subjective value based on these. Viewers are not consciously aware of all this, however, and regard the piece, instantaneously discerning a favorable (or not-so-favorable) impression of it.
Artistic Expression and Creative Process
There is no denying that the act of viewing art has a clear impact on the visual cortex and other key parts of the brain, but the same is also true of creating it. Again, the relationship between specific structures of the brain and the act of creating art remains poorly understood, but it is increasingly evident that artistic expression can help to develop a variety of neural systems.
Embodied cognition again comes into play, as described by Culture Collective's Jacob Devaney: "When you observe a profound piece of art you are potentially firing the same neurons as the artist did when they created it thus making new neural pathways and stimulating a state of inspiration."
Examples of Visual Perception in Art
Visual perception's complex relationship with artistic expression can be seen in a variety of styles and modalities, with artists increasingly eager to make the most of visual processes to shape how viewers interpret or interact with their work. Below, we've highlighted a few examples of how, across many genres and techniques, visual perception influences both the process of creating art and the viewer's response.
Visual Art Forms
Visual perception's role in art is most evident in paintings and drawing, where previously discussed concepts such as focal points can be used to significant effect. Visual perception also shapes the art of photography. This medium, in particular, is highly influenced by the Gestalt principles of perception, which identify our tendency to visually simplify complex images and group similar items together.
One of the most famous uses of perception in visual art history? The iconic works of Claude Monet, who famously launched the Impressionist movement by replacing finer details with bold brushstrokes with the intention of amplifying the overarching impression. To that end, Impressionism focuses on our general perception of environments rather than aiming to create exact replicas.
As artistic expression takes on a more active approach, our understanding of visual processes must evolve. Meant to break down traditional boundaries and promote a more active experience of perceiving art, today's performance pieces often focus on the process of creating, rather than the product. This process, of course, is built on the previously described process of visual perception, but in a unique sense that also incorporates the visual manifestations of motion.
Conceptual works may focus primarily on ideas, but that doesn't mean that they abandon the tenets of visual perception. If anything, perception determines what distinguishes a given piece between being deemed art or an ordinary object. While the central concept of the work in question is the clear focus, it is through the manipulation of perception (often in a distinctly creative way) that viewers can think of a given piece as art in the first place.
Textile art has long deserved recognition but is only now beginning to receive the respect that it should have been garnered all along. When examining both contemporary and traditional works it is immediately evident that visual perception makes these pieces and patterns more impactful.
Visual stimuli determine how we perceive the tactile components of textured works, even if we never actually touch them. This can be further influenced by how tactile works are depicted, as revealed in a series of experiments discussed in the Journal of Vision.
This study also reveals how emerging research into perceptions of tactile art could have huge implications across other modalities: "Understanding the relation between reality and its depiction (whether it is a sketch, painting, photo, computer rendering, hologram, or any future visual invention) is of fundamental interest to broad and diverse audience, from philosophy to the online shopping industry."
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